Johnny Mears played for Cray from 1965 to 1969 (29 games, 4 goals as a left winger). Chatting to Jerry Dowlen in May 2024 John recalled his memories from his time at Grassmeade including his friendships with Billy Smith who has recently passed away, and also with Don Butterfill, John Faulkner and other local lads who grew up with him on the St Paul’s Cray housing estate.

‘I was about 16 or 17 and I went for a trial at Cray Wanderers. After about ten minutes good old Norman Golding the ex-QPR player who was Cray’s manager, interrupted and said he wanted me to come for training and he planned to sign me. I must have impressed him! Cray Wanderers was a wonderful experience for the start of my playing career – and it was for my local team, too.

‘The game I remember most was against Leytonstone in the F.A. Amateur Cup. They were the holders. It was the biggest ever crowd at Grassmeade [11th January 1969 – attendance 2,160]. We got a draw 2 – 2 and both our goals were my assists! We had beaten Lewes and Torpoint in earlier rounds. What a great Cray side that was with John Dorey the rock at centre half and his brother Albert playing too. There was Allen Bishop who I was at Midfield School with, and John Faulkner another local lad from the St Paul’s Cray estate.

‘Billy Smith was in the first Cray side that I played for. He was centre forward and would battle every centre half! I got to know Billy socially: went to his wedding which was a right old East End knees-up. He had a very successful flower business: I believe he supplied flowers to the London hotels and he did very well. He was a thoroughly nice man: I remember unexpectedly seeing him when I was doing some scouting for Canvey Island and they sent me all the way to Taunton. I spotted that Billy was the manager of the visiting team and we had a good chat.

John Mears first right front row in Cray Wanderers 1965-66 Greater London League Champions

‘I was poached by Maidstone United to play in the Isthmian League but we were always getting beaten. We went to play Sutton United who had amateur internationals like Larry Pritchard. I had a good game – I was playing as a left back by then – and we drew 2 – 2. Their manager Sid Cann took me aside and said he wanted to sign me. Maidstone put a stop to it but I did move to Sutton eventually: it was the year after John Faulkner had gone there from Cray and of course John ended up being signed by Leeds United. I played 100 games for Sutton and it was terrific to be with such good players. One of them was Chris Kelly who later became the famous ‘Leatherhead lip.’

John Mears – first right front row during the 1968-69 season

’d like to tell you about two special players who made it into the Football League. Dennis Burnett – he stood out a mile in our local schools football and was spotted playing for Hoblingwell – that was my Sunday team too. He was signed by West Ham United. He played there when Bobby Moore was captain; then he had a long time at Millwall before finishing his career in Norway. I used to hang out with a group of lads and Dennis actually lived very near Grays Farm School where my Mum had sent me. I remember being at Dennis’s house when the news came through of the Manchester United air crash at Munich in February 1958.

‘Then there’s Peter Smith – everyone calls him ‘Buzz’. I was coaching Alma Swanley and in 1993/94 we won the Kent Senior Trophy with Peter scoring twice in the final versus Folkestone. There was a testimonial match for our dear manager Franny Fitzpatrick who passed away. Liam Brady played, as did Jimmy Case, they were manager and assistant manager at Brighton and after the game they wanted Peter to come for a trial. I had encouraged him to be a right back and he did so well in that position that he played 140 games for Brighton. He is my best friend now – in fact I’m sitting in his house in Tunbridge Wells giving this interview to Jerry. 

‘I live near Bicester in Oxfordshire now but I’ve been back to St Paul’s Cray a few times to look around the old place. I knew John Faulkner from the estate: his Dad told me John had an offer from Arsenal as well as Leeds. He chose Leeds but unluckily had a bad injury that stalled his career for a while before he recovered and did very well for Luton Town.

‘Jerry has asked me what Mick Slater would be likely to say about the fantastic progress of Cray Wanderers under Gary Hillman with the club having its own new ground at Flamingo Park now. Mick ran the timber yard at Carlton Parade and one thing I know for sure is that if he could, he would be up at Flamingo Park building the ground by himself. While I was at Cray he was trying to put new terracing in at Grassmeade. Mick was always on the go: he never stopped. 

‘In conclusion I’d like to mention my good friend Don Butterfill. He and I got into the Cray side at about the same time. It was a proud day for us both when we played for an F.A. Amateur XI. Me in an England shirt! – and Don, too. You can’t get much better than that.’

Johnny Mears Cray Wanderers statistics (With thanks to Peter Goringe). 1965/66 – 10 games (1 goal); 1968/69 – 19 games (3 goals). Johnny also played in the Cray Wanderers reserve team that won the Kent Intermediate Cup in 1965/66 beating Brenstonian 3 – 0 in the final.